Nobody ever says writing in the shortest of art forms is simple. But when the readers of those short literary forms are children, barely able to read, sometimes barely able to talk, how hard can writing them be? Much harder than it may appear, poet/journalist/picture book writer Liz Garton Scanlon told her audience at the Lillie Russell Memorial Library in Lindale, Texas, to the “deceptively simple” art of writing for picture books.
|Liz Garton Scanlon|
Scanlon was in Lindale, along with middle grade novelist/creative writing instructor Jeramey Kraatz, on behalf of Texas Writes, a program of The Writers’ League of Texas that brings accomplished authors to rural Texas libraries for a series of free presentations and discussions.
Originally a poet with training in journalism, Scanlon began reading picture books after her first child was born, “re-exploring a lot of books I had loved as a kid.” And she had an epiphany: “The thing about picture books that isn’t true of almost any other form – they get read over and over!” What author wouldn’t be thrilled to know her words have such long legs?
Better still, that author doesn’t face the vocabulary limitations of first reader books or chapter books because, “ideally, you’re reading out loud. . . There’s a mistaken belief that the language of picture books has to be simple. But picture books have an adult present. There’s a huge exposure to the world that doesn’t have to be dumbed down.”
And it’s this shared reading that is one of the most satisfying aspects of picture books. Reading them “is one of the few times in children’s lives when you can’t multitask. It’s profound and intimate.”
Still, in entering the world of picture book authorship, Scanlon learned the hard way that picture books now aren’t the same literary form as those she loved in her own childhood.
Once, picture books were in some ways adult-centered, intended to teach children what adults wanted them to know. Now, they’re about “giving kids a way to have the power that in the real world they rarely do, to see the world through their eyes. These books need to be child-centered, what they see and need and dream about.”
As with any literary genre, picture book authors need to know what’s going on in their field. “I say, read 100 before you start to write. Make 50 or even 70 of those 100 books contemporary. It makes sense to know what’s going on in the picture book world (and to) think of picture books as a child’s first walk into the world of literacy.”
So, what exactly are the basics of what Scanlon termed, perhaps not completely jokingly, “the hidden underbelly of the picture book world”?
Ideas, for one. “I used to think I had to have some really grand ideas (but) so many books are about the world inside us. And those can be miraculous enough,” she said, referencing her A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes, a book of metaphors. “Kids don’t know word (metaphor) but they understand the concept.”
“Idea” books, sometimes called concept books, rely less on the narrative arc essential for most fiction. Picture books with a traditional (although short) narrative arc still thrive, but within the few pages available for the books, the narrative needs to be as brief as flash fiction.
Picture books generally have 32 pages, the first few of which are dedicated to issues of copyright and title. And as modern parents find themselves with less time to devote to reading picture books, the words on those 30-odd pages have decreased from the 1000 of a few years ago to often fewer than 500 now.
The emphasis on brevity makes the book illustrator the author’s savior. “Write the 1000-word version, and pare it down. What’s all the stuff the illustrator can do? Take that out!”
(Need more help? A lot more? Check out Scanlon’s site for ideas, and for in-depth aid, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and its many local chapters.)
I first heard about Texas Writes in 2016, when The Writers’ League visited Dallas to discuss, among other issues, the program. I was excited enough to put Texas Writes on my list of events, and pick one of the closest, in Lindale, for a visit. The program, supported by a grant from the Tocker Foundation, began in 2013 with visits to five small libraries in Central Texas. It’s expanded this year to 15 libraries across the state.
Check the current list (additions are made as needed) at the site. Librarians interested in participating may email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Writers League at (512) 499-8914. The next Texas Writes visit will be this Saturday, February 25, to the Hood County Library, 222 N. Travis St., Granbury, from 1-4 p.m. It’s free, but to be sure there are enough tables, chairs (and refreshments), please pre-register with the library at (817) 573-3569.